KEVIN LEININGER: When opportunity knocks, you’d better be ready — and new owner of iconic radio station is

Brian Walsh, seen here with a guest, has agreed to buy Fort Wayne radio icon WLYV. (Courtesy photo)
Rick Hughes, an original WLYV "Lyv guy" hopes to keep spinning oldies under new owner Brian Walsh. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Ron Stone
Kevin Leininger

Seventeen years ago, Brian Walsh converted a bedroom in his Warsaw home into a hand-made studio and pretty soon WIOE-FM — at the time just the fourth low-power radio station in Indiana — was filling the airwaves with rock ‘n’ roll oldies. If all goes as planned, his voice and the music of the past will soon be heard on an iconic Fort Wayne station once known as the hippest in town.

“I never dreamed I’d own a Fort Wayne radio station, but this opportunity came from a broker on Good Friday (April 19) and by Monday I had decided I was interested. It’s a legendary signal, and I still wake up with goosebumps,” said Walsh, 51, who has signed a $200,000 agreement to buy WLYV-AM and 104.3-FM counterpart from Minnesota-based Adams Radio, which entered the market in 2014 when it bought the station and seven others.

“We have eight frequencies (in Fort Wayne) and our major focus is on FM. (Walsh) is an incredible broadcaster who will give WLYV the love and attention it deserves, and we’ll do anything we can to help him be successful,” said Adams CEO Ron Stone.

People who have grown up with digitally downloaded music and satellite radio may find it hard to believe, but AM radio was once the king of rock ‘n’ roll — and in 1960s Fort Wayne, WLYV wore the crown. Its more-powerful rival WOWO may have had better ratings, but nobody could match the so-called “LYV guys” for cool.

Now, even though WLYV will continue playing as oldies many of the same songs that were top-40 hits decades ago, Walsh isn’t looking to recapture the past. The station’s future can best be assured, he said, by the same formula that made WIOE successful enough to evolve from a 100-watt low-power station into a 6,000-watt commercial station four years ago: around-the clock programming with what Walsh calls a “hyper-local” emphasis.

That’s not just a slogan. Walsh’s history as a radio station owner began even before the Federal Communications Commission granted WIOE a license in 2002. The FCC had rejected Warsaw High School’s application for a low-power license, so Walsh helped build a studio at the school students use when they broadcast on his station. Even WIOE’s oldies format reflects the community, having been selected by listeners in an internet survey

Most of WIOE’s programming will also be carried by WLYV, which adopted a similar oldies format after Adams bought it. Prior to that, the station had shed its rock roots by switching to country in 1974 before turning to religious programing as “Redeemer Radio.” Walsh’s ownership could be complete by the end of July, but because he was already on the air in nearby Warsaw and Whitley County (Walsh bought 101.1-FM in South Whitley in 2015), he opened a Fort Wayne sales office in November to “test the waters.” The results, he said, were encouraging.

Walsh, the father of five daughters, admits his children “probably wouldn’t listen if Dad wasn’t in radio.” Hence the importance of building a rapport with listeners and the communities in which they live. That’s where institutional memory comes in, and it’s doubtful anyone has more knowledge of WLYV’s place in Fort Wayne radio history than Rick Hughes, an original “LYV guy” who left the station in 1972 before returning under Adams’ ownership to host weekend oldies shows. “All I know is, this is what I’ve always wanted to do,” said Hughes, who hopes to continue after the transition — something Walsh also wants to make happen.

“Rick was on our asset list and will be part of the station,” said Walsh, whose “Flyin’ Brian” nickname reflects the fact that he’s owned a helicopter since 1987. Stone said he could help keep Hughes in the fold by working out a way to provide Fort Wayne studio space so Hughes doesn’t have to drive to Warsaw, an hour’s drive west of Fort Wayne.

Change is a constant in the radio business, but Walsh’s determination to reflect and serve the community he already knows so well — he worked as a WOWO engineer and on-air morning personality for 10 years after graduating from college — have prepared him to make the most of an opportunity he never thought he’d have.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.